Ricardo Gomes

The Singular Elegance of American Ballet Theatre's Calvin Royal III ​

In an iPhone video of a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal made in early March, Calvin Royal III stands in a corner of an American Ballet Theatre studio, arms reaching far into space, chin slightly raised in welcoming anticipation. There is such warmth and openness in his stance, you can understand why Juliet would want to hurl herself halfway across the stage into his arms. He looks directly into the eyes of his partner, Cassandra Trenary, and then lowers her into a swoon.

"He approaches everything with a sincerity that I love," Trenary says later. "No matter what he dances, he is always authentically himself."

Royal and Trenary were meant to make their debuts in the ballet on April 4, in Abu Dhabi. The following month, he was scheduled to perform as Romeo to Misty Copeland's Juliet, and make his Albrecht debut, at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House. But then the COVID-19 crisis hit, bringing the entire world to a halt and putting all premieres on an indefinite hold.

Royal—tall, lanky, with a silken, elegant way of moving and a gentle and open stage manner—would seem ideally suited to play Romeo. There is a quiet persuasiveness to his dancing. He doesn't show off. Instead, he imbues each movement with an aura of beauty and lyricism. As Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of the company, puts it, "Calvin has an inner light."

Romeo is a role Royal has craved since he began to study dance. At times, though, he has wondered whether
the opportunity would ever arrive. Royal wasn't a prodigy. His ascent has been gradual, even painstaking at times. You get the feeling he has earned every role, every opportunity through determination and the integrity of his dancing, but without ever losing that grace that makes him such a joy to watch onstage. He is hungry without being driven by ambition.

His quietly serious way of working has been one of the constants of his career. "Slow and steady, every day a little bit better, and absolutely consistent," Raymond Lukens, who taught him at the ABT-affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says of his approach.

Royal didn't get his start in ballet until age 14, at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. Before that, he had been a serious piano student. It was his grandmother Linda, a social worker and a lover of classical music, opera and dance, who first encouraged his artistic tendencies. When he was 10, she bought him a Yamaha electric keyboard for Christmas. "I'll never forget it," she says. "He called me one Sunday morning and said, 'I want you to listen to something.' " On the other end of the line, he started to play Beethoven's Für Elise. He had learned it by ear.

Royal excelled at his piano studies, but also loved to move. For a few years, he took part in a local production called The Chocolate Nutcracker, which included hip hop, West African and other styles of dance. One of his fellow participants encouraged him to audition for the high school dance program. Without ever having taken a formal dance class, he was accepted.

Calvin Royal jumps onstage in a high pass\u00e9, the bottom foot pointed straight to the stage below him.

In Manon

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

There was so much to learn, he sometimes felt he might never catch up. "I think it intrigued him that ballet took so much effort," says Suzanne Pomerantzeff, his main teacher at Pinellas. The intellectual challenge drew him in as much as the physical.

That focus carried him through some difficult times at home. In his sophomore year, he injured his back in a car accident and had to sit out ballet classes for several months, excruciating given he had only just begun to make progress. He would take notes on the side, "visualizing dance in my mind," as he puts it. Dance became a lifeline, a source of steadiness and hope.

In his junior year, he competed in Youth America Grand Prix, where he was spotted by Lukens and Franco De Vita, of the JKO School. "I was immediately struck by his elegance, his musicality and his coordination," remembers De Vita, who offered him a scholarship.

After a year in the school and two and a half in ABT II (now the ABT Studio Company), he got into the main company, initially as an apprentice, at 21. He was still getting his technique where he wanted it to be—quick footwork and beats were a challenge for his long, lithe physique. ("I wanted to move like those little guys," he says, "but it wasn't easy with these legs.")

But he also wondered whether he fit the typical mold of a principal dancer at the company. "It was only when I came to New York that I started to become more aware of race in ballet," says Royal. In Florida, his ballet classes had been mixed. In New York City, less so. When he first joined ABT II, he overheard other dancers from the company making snide comments about a fellow African-American dancer there. "Oh, well, I guess they needed a black girl,' " he heard one of them say.

He began to wonder whether he might never be given the chance to prove himself as a leading man by McKenzie and the rest of the artistic staff. "Will they see me as Romeo or Albrecht? Not only because I'm black, but also because I'm gay?"

At the time, he says, the company culture was different: "There was this sense of machismo, and this idea that the guys had to look sort of like football players." Ethan Stiefel, José Manuel Carreño and other powerhouses in that vein were company stars. Just a few years earlier, in 2003, the company had put out a video, Born to Be Wild, that depicted its male dancers as testosterone-driven guys who rode motorcycles and posed as matadors.

Since that time, much has changed. Fewer international stars come through ABT; a new generation of home-bred principals has risen to the top, and they are anything but cookie-cutter. (Only one, however, is black: Misty Copeland.) Rigid notions about what Romeo or Siegfried should look like have finally begun to relax, to the benefit of the dancers.

Calvin Royal reaches forward in a wide lunge, dressed in white and black

In Serenade After Plato's Symposium

Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT

Royal's particular qualities have been recognized and put to artistic use, especially by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence. In 2013, Ratmansky gave him a major role in his evening-length Shostakovich Trilogy. Three years later, he created an extra-ordinary, melancholy solo for him in Serenade after Plato's Symposium. The solo showcased the gracefulness of Royal's port de bras, the inwardness of his dancing, and his capacity to communicate thought and emotion through movement. Others have danced it, but none with the same poetry.

Royal also leads one of the three debut casts of Ratmansky's newest ballet epic, Of Love and Rage, originally scheduled to have its New York premiere during the company's spring season at the Met. That too will have to wait, for now.

The poetry in Royal's dancing is related to his deep, subtle musicality; music flows through him. It's not surprising that his partner, ABT pianist Jacek Mysinski, is a musician. Their work spills over into their downtime; Mysinski practices at home, and they talk about the ballets in the rep. When Mysinski is playing from the pit during a performance, Royal can feel his presence, he says: "It's almost like having him at my side, almost like a partner."

Royal was promoted to soloist in 2017, nearly seven years after joining. At some point along the way, he admits, he had begun to spin his wheels. "I got my hopes up and then I got my hopes shattered. I even started thinking about exploring other options, maybe another company or something completely different."

Calvin Royal in all white lunges forward alone on a dark stage

Performing Apollo

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

What kept him going, he explains, were outside projects that fueled his creativity and imagination, as well as his confidence. He danced for several seasons with Daniil Simkin's touring group Intensio. And, perhaps most meaningfully, he became a repeat visitor to Damian Woetzel's yearly Vail Dance Festival in the Rockies, where he got to dance a completely new repertory: works by Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, new creations by Pam Tanowitz and others.

"Year after year, he has become ever more himself onstage," says Woetzel, who has become an important mentor. "His level of comfort in everything he does has become expansive." This year, he selected Royal to be the festival's artist in residence, leading workshops, performing in various premieres and taking part in initiatives related to the challenges boys face in ballet. "I see a real leadership quality in Calvin," says Woetzel.

Last summer at Vail, Royal danced excerpts from Apollo, one of the pinnacles of the male repertoire. A few months later, McKenzie asked him to make his debut in the full piece in New York, with ABT. It was a remarkable moment—he looked completely at home in the role of a young god. He may have to wait a little longer for his debut as Romeo, but his time, it seems, has finally come.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021